Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, August 01, 2009

On Reading Junk

by Sariah S. Wilson

It takes a lot for me to not finish a book.

Typically my reasoning is that I want to at least finish and see how it all turns out. There are some books I can't struggle through ("Nanny Diaries," "Shadowmancer," and "Lord of the Rings" being three that immediately spring to mind - the first for boring me out of my mind, the second for failing to intrigue or interest me in any way, the third for singing guys named Tom Bombadil who made it impossible for me to read past that point. Plus I hear the Arwen/Aragorn romance was embellished in the movie and that would just irritate me because I loved them, so I stopped reading.)

I know that there are other people who don't feel this way - that they won't finish reading books they consider to be junk or not well written.

And today as I read a romance with a hero who was so thoroughly unlikeable and just mean until the last two pages, I came to a realization.

Of course you should read books that are considered well-written. Of course you should study classics to see what makes them classic. I read bestsellers to try and dissect what makes them bestsellers, what that particular author excels at.

On the flip side of that, I think reading junk can make you a better writer too. I am finding it incredibly helpful. For example, I read one recently where the climax/resolution came way too quickly. It made me consider what I would have done to fix it. It had a prince and a commoner and he mostly treated her like dirt all the time until she went out for a walk one night and he thought she'd been kidnapped. Suddenly he's all "I love you and let's get married." I think I actually said, "What?" out loud. Some time needed to elapse. He need to realize what a jerk he'd been and apologize/atone for it. She needed to have some self-respect and should have told him where he could stick his proposal until he learned to be an actual human being. Pacing is so important, and I know it's hard sometimes to get it right, but seeing when someone does it so completely wrong I think has helped me to better plot out the final scenes/chapters of my book.

Or, as mentioned above, the unlikeable hero. He was vindictive and hateful for 96% of the book and then wait, oh, he did love the heroine and he didn't really mean all the abuse and torture he'd put her through. I did not want them to end up together. That's bad. Your readers should be willing to go through anything with your characters to see them achieve their end goal (in this case, a happily ever after).

I hate heroines who are, as they say in the romance community, TSTL (too stupid to live). You know the sort - they're the main victims in horror movies. Where a reasonably intelligent person would say, "I am NOT going in that creepy old house," the TSTL heroine skips on in without any thought for personal safety. Sometimes there's a tendency to want to make your heroines (or heroes, as the case may be) do something dumb to move the plot along. Please refrain. Thank you.

Make the payoff worthy of the build-up. I think there are few things I dislike more than a book that spends every chapter building up to a specific moment, only to have that scene totally fizzle out (see also, the final "fight" scene in "Breaking Dawn.")

Say that things are going to be okay just because you want them to be. I just finished a book where the hero/heroine had some serious differences, serious enough to break them up. But they reunite and get engaged without ever addressing any of those issues or even bringing them up.

Don't tell me something is your character's primary motivation and then have it go out the door. Don't tell me a 19th century man values honor above all else and then have him do something that besmirches his honor and it doesn't seem to bother him in the least. Or tell me that the hero is tired of dealing with needy women that he has to care for (mom and four sisters), making him keep a distance from any woman that isn't totally independent, only to have him turn around and take care of the heroine without it concerning him at all. If your character does change their mind about what matters most to them, please show me this process so that I can believe it.

What about you? Do you feel like you gain valuable insight from reading books that aren't that great, or do you not waste your time reading them?


At 8/02/2009 2:16 PM, Blogger Tamara Hart Heiner said...

this was a fantastic post. I could so relate to everything you said, and I kept thinking of novels that did the wrong things! Especially the making your hero/heroine do something dumb. Um, okay, I'm gonna jump ship now.

I try to read every book I pick up. but some I simply can't. I have zero interest in it. I have other, interesting things to do with my time. I always feel bad for that author, b/c surely I'm not the only one who will feel that way.

but yes! when I read a book and can pinpoint the negative issues, it helps me remember not to do that in my own writing.

At 8/02/2009 4:04 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

I agree with what you're saying about "bad" books being helpful in what-not-to-do, but I figured out recently how many books I'll realistically be able to read in my lifetime and...yeah, I just can't waste time on bad books.

Also, I SOOOOO agree with not having your characters act out of character to move the plot along. That's my number one pet peeve that's sure to turn a book into a wallbanger for me.

At 8/02/2009 4:46 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

I'm like you, it take a lot for me to put down a book. I'm OCD about finishing them--regardless of how hard it is for me.

I also believe that "bad books" help (and also give hope!) but sometimes I just can't stand it anymore and I have to put it down. You know its real bad when I've reached that point.

This has been my favorite post to read this week! Well done!

At 8/02/2009 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Confession: I’ve read practically every Star Trek Original Series book ever written. These books first were published back in the seventies and couldn’t have been much thicker than a slice of bread. At a time in my life when I could only read for pleasure a few minutes at a time, my children were small and I was attending college, these stories provided a convenient diversion. They weren’t penned by a single author. I guess as long as a writer followed certain parameters, anyone could submit a manuscript for consideration.

I had favorite “episodes,” of course. They were the ones written very well—considering what limitations they had to work with. I mean, you know Kirk or any of the other main people couldn’t be knocked-off or go out of character, and when ever there was peripheral crew introduced into the story you knew that one or more of them were going to be the obligatory “red shirt” and be killed off before the next scene.

Unfortunately, there were a few authors who knew absolutely nothing about how to write a good story, and I don’t know how their mss got accepted. Those particular books I only skimmed through, reading the highlights to find out how the story ended. I did not set them aside. But, you’re right, Sariah, I did learn from those bad books as much as I have from all the great books I’ve read over the years.

I don’t have the tolerance to read anything poorly written any longer. Nor do I have the time. My life is busy enough with trying to learn the craft of writing and still keep up with my other obligations that haven’t stopped just because I decided to become a writer.

Great questions.


At 8/02/2009 11:30 PM, Blogger Anna said...

I have had a hard time in the past putting down books even if they were awful. One in particular, I was rolling my eyes at least every other page. I still finished it though - it was Book on Tape and I was at work, so it wasn't like I didn't have the time to listen to it then.

I do feel like you can learn from them, even if you don't finish them. Characters need to be realistic. They can be upset, even depressed. But they can't be so over upset and whiny that the reader really doesn't care what happens to them and is actually glad that something bad happened to them.

At 8/02/2009 11:54 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

When I do force myself to read a poorly written book, I think it brings down my writing morale. I start to question my own writing. The other night in critique group as I was reading through my chapter, I thought it sounded completely lame. But the critique members didn't say it was lame (and they WOULD if it really was). I'm still wondering though.

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At 8/04/2009 12:14 AM, Blogger Sarah M Eden said...

Amen, sister! I think one reason romances are looked down on as a genre, is that soooooooooo many of them have these exact problems you are talking about. I am very happy to know I am not the only one who yells at the books I'm reading when the author does something like that!!

PS Loved "Servant to a King"

At 8/04/2009 11:59 AM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

Thanks everyone for the comments - I always like how many different perspectives there are.

P.S. Sarah - this is because you have impeccable taste. ;) (Thank you!)

At 8/04/2009 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I refer to 'having-heroes-or-heroines-do-stupid things-to-move-the-plot-along' as '24itis'.

A college professor of mine taught me a trick for reading books that drag- skip ahead 20 to 50 pages and continue reading. You will either become interested and want to jump back and see what you missed or you'll just be that much further ahead. Repeat until satisfied.

I really enjoyed your post!

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